The summer reading she did not get to, on bedside stand and desk, whispered the bones of an essay: A Writer’s Diary, Moments of Being, The Archetypal Symbolism of Animals, A Story Like the Wind. For that matter, it had been a summer of titles, disembodied heads, essays never executed.
Becoming a Nudist. In her journal, alone in a cabin in Vermont, she wrote: “Walking around in a towel, feeling good to be naked, uninhibited, and unseen, a title occurs to me.”
The Places She Did Not Stop. Driving south from Vermont after a week with her mother, she did not stop at the newspaper to see her former boss or at the local movie theater to touch base with an old friend. She did not stop for maple butter, or for a sandwich to eat on the ferry across Lake Champlain, or at the Shelburne Museum where she went on class trips as a child. She stopped only at the do-it-yourself carwash, where she took satisfaction in the slapdash comedy of quarter-gobbling machine, wand, suds and spray. After coming off a week’s worth of dusty dirt roads and a testy farewell with her mother, it was a novel way to cool down, practically a baptism. After that, she did not stop again until she got to the Adirondack camp that once belonged to her grandmother.
The Guest Book. She slept in the alcoholic matriarch’s bedroom, in the new part of an old cottage, the new part itself more than 50 years old, not new at all anymore. Things had been a lot spiffier when her grandmother was alive. As a child, she’d been enchanted by the white towels with magenta monograms that hung in her bathroom. While scouting out a plunger to address the matter of a sluggish toilet, she found their graying remains in the basement, downsized into rags.
On a side table in the great room, with its bear rug and witnessing taxidermy, she found the guest book with her grandmother’s name in gold script on the leather cover. Her own name was there numerous times on the first page, lending the impression that she had been a regular visitor. More to the point, she was one of the few who took the guest book seriously; halfway down the second page the entries peter out for good. Memorial Day, 1968, she wrote Fun Times! in the space for comments, apparently following the lead of a great aunt who’d written “Wonderful Time!” just above this.
Fun Times! She’d thought of introducing a guest book to the cabin in Vermont. She kept the notes left by visitors in a spiral notebook—mentions of wild turkey sightings and ideal sledding conditions. But she knew the spirit behind this idea wasn’t quite right, that she was more interested in having a precise accounting of who didn’t change the sheets and clean out the fridge than a record of Fun Times!
The Work. Heading south from the Adirondacks, she checked in at the Omega Institute in the Catskills to take in a workshop by the spiritual guru Byron Katie, author of Loving What Is. Katie’s technique, “The Work,” is a way of inquiring into the stories we cobble onto raw experience, stories that create suffering. A ditty found in the literature passed out during the introduction put it this way: “Judge your neighbor, write it down. Ask four questions, turn it around.” Lose the story and you’re left with the stark, beauteous, unmediated now. Over the weekend she learned that The Work could be further reduced to a simple equation: the stuff we put on others = our self-portrait.
Comfort Zone. She settled in to a tented structure with twin cots and a stand-up fan in dim woods on the extreme back margin of the property, the low-rent district. She made her cot with sheets and blankets from home. In the evening, she stumbled in the dark back to her woodsy encampment. Without the benefit of paths or path lights, she imagined ticks, Lyme disease, and poison ivy, narratives that caused suffering well in advance of symptoms. An owl hooted close by in the woods. She used a moldering communal bathhouse with poor water pressure and rust-stained showers. Sitting on the can, she conjured a nasty case of athlete’s foot. The smell of the bathhouse soon reversed the narrative flow, taking her back to summer camp, to plywood stalls fecund with tween doodles: Here I sit in blooming vapor… Maybe she’d bring a Sharpie, leave behind a good Byron Katie quote. She’d already recorded quite a few in her journal: Inquiry brings you out of the trance. Who would you be without that thought? Reality is always kinder than our imagination.
She did not try the trapeze at the Omega Center, something that might have nudged her out of her comfort zone toward a transcendent moment. After dinner she sat watching from the sturdy embrace of an Adirondack chair on the lawn: women in yoga pants, much like herself, swinging through the air and plunking lightly into the safety net.
Draining the Swamp. Back home in Baltimore, she wrestled with the problem of how a writer, a story-builder, was to incorporate Katie’s deconstructionist wisdom. Her old black cat withered and died, leaving her disheartened, with no energy for work of any kind. She tore images from old books for collages never assembled: a ragged black cat drinking from a bowl of cream; a young girl standing in the bow of a canoe, gazing across rippled waters toward a cabin on a tiny island; the page from an old textbook outlining an experiment called Draining the Swamp. “First scoop out a hole at one end of the swamp,” it began. It showed a girl reaching into a fish tank filled with rich earth to impress a hole with her index finger, and concluded with a practical disclaimer: “Real swamps are not drained quite so easily, of course.”
Cat Country. At a ranch in Montana, she ate too much bacon and had cocktails every night. She spent long hours in the saddle, riding through a landscape peppered with bleached bones and fresh deer and elk kill. She kept an eye out for big game–mountain lion, bear–but saw only chipmunks, deer, and a tree full of Western bluebirds before a gathering storm. At dusk, she sat on a bank of the Blackfoot River, holding a dowsing crystal over Medicine Cards laid out on a blanket. Canada geese flew raucously overhead. Below, a family of Common Mergansers made a ruckus in the river. A wise woman guided her to her totem animals. As they packed up blanket, cards and crystal, a Buck Moon rose through the trees.
Flying Weight. She flew home with a bladder infection, her waterworks mucked up. On the news, the Animas River ran mustard yellow from three million gallons of toxic mining waste and heavy metals. At a busy urban intersection, through the sunroof, she spotted an unusually large bird in flight—a great blue heron. Several days later, at another intersection, a second heron passed directly overhead. At home she consulted her medicine card notes: great blue heron, her “above totem.” Keywords: self-reflection.
Lift, Thrust and Drag. Friends came for a late summer dinner, one of them a former teacher, colleague, and writer. As always, he asked about her writing. He’d asked her that question for nearly two decades, never failing to meet her hedged responses with support and encouragement. She stepped up to the plate in a new way. She’d come up with a realistic goal, given her age and output thus far, and thought he might appreciate her new candor. “I might have one memoir in me,” she ventured.
“Oh?” He raised his eyebrows. “You think your life is that interesting?”
A spark rose within her, something reactive and defensive. After all, what was his work but rehashed life? He’d made a whole career of writing obsessively about the most mundane details! Then she remembered something Katie had said. Your heart rate, stomach and emotions will let you know when you’re projecting. Through him she heard her own voice that didn’t think her life was interesting enough.
Ghost Town. Back in Montana for a writers’ retreat, the summer’s swansong, she flew into Missoula, her birthplace and personal axis mundi. Or so she hoped. A pall of smoke from regional wildfires had obliterated the town and every soaring view, rendering the familiar ghostly and surreal.
People asked what she was working on and she grew twitchy. Her summer’s work had mostly been titles, but no one here knew that. For a few days she could at least fake it. Tentatively, like speaking a foreign language, she practiced: Memoir.
One of the retreat presenters said if you don’t experience angst when writing a memoir, something is wrong. She compared it to a donut. We write around the places we don’t want to go. Find the hole, she said. Dig there.
Two days into the retreat, winds came, and after that enough driving rain to clear the smoke. Late in the afternoon, the sun broke through and a rainbow appeared in the sky over the mountain range in front of the ranch house where they gathered to discuss prose rhythms. With the others, she ran outside to witness the dazzling reappearance of color in the landscape, the miraculous restoration of place. In that light all things seemed possible.
Lindsay Fleming is a graduate of the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Her essays and short fiction have appeared in Scribner’s Best of the Fiction Workshops, Room to Grow and Baltimore City Paper.